Blog: Lessons on libel from Katie Hopkins

Val Surgenor

Val Surgenor looks at the contrasting defamation regimes north and south of the border. 

Food blogger Jack Monroe has been awarded £24,000 in damages in a libel action against controversial columnist Katie Hopkins.

The action stemmed from two tweets posted in May 2015 by Katie Hopkins asking Jack if she had “scrawled on any memorials recently.” Ms Monroe pursued a libel action against Ms Hopkins contending that the tweets had caused “serious harm” to her reputation by insinuating that she had either vandalised or condoned and approved of the vandalising of war memorials.

In the judgment, Mr Justice Warby ruled in Ms Munroe’s favour by contending that the tweets had caused her “real and substantial” distress and was therefore entitled to “fair and reasonable compensation.”

Ms Hopkins’ representative had argued that the matter was a trivial dispute caused by a “mistake” on Ms Hopkins part which was resolved on Twitter within hours and did not cause any lasting harm to Ms Munroe’s reputation.

Mr Justice Warby, was however, satisfied that the tweets had caused serious harm to Ms Munroe’s reputation.

As well as £24,000 damages, Katie Hopkins will also be liable to pay Jack Monroe’s legal costs and court fees which are around £100,000.

Last week Katie Hopkins was told that her application for permission to appeal Mr Justice Warby’s judgment was unsuccessful. It has been reported that she has now lodged an application for permission to appeal with the Court of Appeal.

The law on Libel

Libel is the term used in English law for publication of a defamatory statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation. The law of defamation operates slightly differently in Scotland and in England & Wales.

In England & Wales, to be actionable a libellous statement must be “communicated” to other third parties. Whereas in Scotland, a defamatory statement can still be considered defamatory, even if it is only communicated to the person who is the subject of the statement.

On Twitter, when a tweet is posted, it can be said to have been “communicated” as it can be read by followers and the general public. However, a defamatory message sent from a restricted Twitter feed, by direct message or email could fall within the Scots law of defamation.

The Scottish Law Commission has recently ended a consultation period on their discussion paper on the law of Defamation. This was in response to significant changes made by the Defamation Act 2013 in England & Wales. The Scottish Law Commission intend to publish their report with recommendations and draft legislation by the end of 2017.